A production of From the House of the Dead will always be a much-anticipated and significant event in the life of an opera company, because it has to be the most extraordinary opera by one of the most individual and dramatically gifted of all composers, Leos Janacek. It was also his final composition, and the third act was on his desk when he died in 1928.
While Janacek’s mature stage works set to music some very unusual subjects, this one surely takes the biscuit for the most extreme. The cast is almost exclusively male, and within the very basic framework – of one prisoner arriving at the prison camp at the beginning and being released at the end – there is no conventional narrative as such, rather a collective “chorus” from which individuals step forward to tell their stories of why they were incarcerated, and then retreat back into the group.
But while these personal histories are largely violent and grisly, and the setting in a Siberian labour camp undoubtedly grim, it seems to me there’s an irrepressible life force within Janacek’s music here, almost as if the more dark the personal tragedy, the more intensely bright the musical energy burns. You can easily detect the composer’s interest in Moravian folk culture – the music positively dances in places – and with no overindulgence or sentimentality Janacek seems to seek out the humanity in even the cruellest of tales. As he himself wrote on the title page: “in every creature a spark of God”.
Janacek notates sounds from the orchestra rarely called for elsewhere in the repertoire, and I’ve discussed with the percussion department how, or in some cases where, we are going to achieve them. Although the noise of chains, metallic sawing, hammering anvils, axe blows and tools rattling are clearly appropriate to the sound world of a labour camp, the way in which they are written in the score suggests that in many cases these are generic colours in the music rather than noises directly linked to a visual action on stage. A feast day procession in Act 2 demands three groups of bells playing simultaneously, but separated by distance. These will have to be played from different places off to the side of the stage, both to create the desired effect and because there won’t be any room for them in the orchestra pit!